Journalists are economical

I once had a job interview with a national broadcaster where I was asked about the then-current Lewinsky-Clinton scandal. When I replied that I felt it was time to move on, the interviewer frowned. I didn’t get the job.

This interview came to mind this week when I read Journalists and the information-attention markets: Towards an economic theory of journalism by Susanne Fengler & Stephan Russ-Mohl.

According to them, my opinion on the Lewinsky story meant I was something of a journalistic spendthrift.

Because Fengler & Russ-Mohl’s paper argues that, just as we treat publishers and newsroom managers as economically motivated, we should do the same for journalists.

“Journalists can be described as rational actors seeking to promote their own interests, reacting to material and non-material incentives and rewards, calculating risks and benefits,” it says. “They seek to maximise attention for their work, they try to minimise costs of investigation and research and to use their sources to their greatest professional benefit, and so forth.”

‘Pack journalism’, for example, is considered an example of ‘free riding’ and the tragedy of the commons: ‘hot news’ – such as the Lewinsky story – will be “overused”:

“The fixed costs of learning … tips the balance in story selection toward continuous coverage of a given event rather than undertaking new investigations.” (from James Hamilton, All The News That’s Fit To Sell, 2004)

The paper’s greatest strength is its description of the interaction between journalists and sources – and how the vested interests of both serve to create ‘blind spots’:

“While most agents in all the principal-agent relationships involved in the flow of news processing may, in general, be committed to telling the truth, all of them have incentives to either exaggerate or to withhold some of the truth to their ‘principals’ in order to look better and more professional. The ‘blind spots’ of media coverage are not merely accidental. They are, most frequently, the result of self-interested behaviour.

“If withholding chunks of relevant information can be seen as highly probable, iterative behaviour of all actors involved in news processing, this may add up to a cumulative effect.”

More research, say the authors, will help identify and predict these blind spots more systematically, which can then “possibly be solved by adjusting the parameters and incentives under which journalists operate”.

We live in hope.

In the meantime, this is an essential piece of reading, including an overview of how economic factors have shaped journalism over the past 150 years – helping it move towards from a partisan to an objective format (for mass audiences and unoffended advertisers), influencing content, and providing an “indirect information subsidy” in the shape of public relations. Oh, and don’t miss the footnotes, too.

But it also comes at a curious time. Just as the business models of news institutions have been shaken, so the economics of journalistic interaction are becoming vastly different to those of the past 100 years: a source no longer needs a journalist in the same way. The balance of power has shifted. Journalists have no idea where best to invest their time – in blogging? Social networking? Video? Good old fashioned talking? Press releases? Twitter?

Anyone who can pick apart the economics of that deserves high praise indeed.

5 thoughts on “Journalists are economical

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  2. Dave


    Thanks very much for the recommendation, it very much introduced me to a new branch of the journalism literature I hadn’t had much experence with.

    It seemed to me one of their main premises was that the economic motivator for journalists — what they seek to maximize — is personal fame and/or “attention for the products of their news organizations.”

    Do you agree that this claim is central to the argument, and if so, I’m curious whether you were persuaded by their justification for it?

  3. Pingback: Charles on… anything that comes along » An economic theory of what journalists do

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